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The cocktail party: Make it feel effortless

Mini Asian Crab Cakes with wasabi cream, Bite-sized Polenta Squares and Prosciutto-Wrapped Breadsticks are easily managed on one plate, with an Escape from Alcatraz drink in hand.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Mini Asian Crab Cakes with wasabi cream, Bite-sized Polenta Squares and Prosciutto-Wrapped Breadsticks are easily managed on one plate, with an Escape from Alcatraz drink in hand.

i hold these truths to be self evident. People love hot hors d'oeuvres, especially if they involve molten cheese. People can, and will, camp out in the kitchen at a party in the most inconvenient location, in plain sight of a perfectly lovely couch in the living room. People will lose their drink and pour another one. People will use an unconscionable number of napkins. And in the face of delicious fruity cocktails, especially those containing umbrellas or fancy garnishes, people will lose their good sense. • It is for these reasons that we bring you: Cocktail Party 2.0. • According to Lillian Joyce, a trial attorney in Tampa known as a party-hostess extraordinaire, there's one cardinal rule that holds true for cocktail parties and sit-down dinners alike: • "If you really want to have a great party, put a lot of work in beforehand. But when that doorbell rings, no one can have a better time at that party than you. If the host is having a great time, the guests will have a great time." • So that you can get to that point, here are some tips for setting your cocktail party plans in motion.

food and drink

Make aheads: Phyllo dough and puff pastry lend themselves to freezeable hors d'oeuvres. Make a couple each week in the month before a party and the freezer will be full of bake-and-serves. Supplement these with doctored store-bought items (cucumber rounds piped with Philly salmon cream cheese; a "meze" platter of purchased hummus, feta, olives, roasted red peppers and pita wedges).

Arrange food in different parts of your house — wine and cocktails on the patio, a buffet table in the family room, desserts in a hallway. This gets people out of your kitchen and circulating. If carpeting is an issue, consider throwing down a cheapie holiday area rug.

Cocktail shakers are cool, but they entail some spills and some stickiness. In the same vein, martini glasses get very sloshy as guests get likewise. We're not saying "go sippy cup," but regular highball-shaped glasses are safe and all-purpose.

• At the beginning of a party there's a bottleneck at the bar. Premixing batches of "signature" mixed drinks (maybe something retro — Harvey Wallbangers? Monkey Glands?) or punch can get a drink in everyone's hand in no time. Once your pitchers are empty, people seem content to mix their own drinks or switch to wine. And feel adventuresome: People get hung up on vodka being the "universal solvent." Most party guests are willing to try a featured cocktail, especially if it has a fun name.

• If you are doing passed hors d'oeuvres, stagger hot and cold dishes (so that the voracious don't camp out near your oven door).

• Count on five paper plates, napkins and glasses per person, and try to limit stand-up cocktail party foods to those that can be eaten with fingers or fork-only.

other elements

• On an invitation, include a beginning time and end time. 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. is a nice window, and doesn't imply a full dinner will be served.

Music: Make an iPod playlist specifically for the party or, better yet, ask each guest to give you a "request" song when they RSVP (and be relentless about getting those RSVPs!), so the evening's soundtrack is comprised of people's faves. For something more festive, music students from area colleges are eager to gig.

Hire a kid to take coats and bags (also hostess gifts, but be sure you keep track of who brought what). Then, when you're ready for the party to be over, have the kid bring coats and bags out to a chair by the front door: a subliminal message for lingerers.

• Invited a wallflower or two? Ask them to help with something in the kitchen. They'll be more comfortable and you can use the extra hands.

• Even if you prepare party foods and drinks yourself, consider hiring a server to pass food, scoop up empties and clean the kitchen as the party progresses.

essential equipment

• Stow beer and soda in a sturdy cooler, stick wine bottles (some of them opened and recorked) in a big metal tub (plastic planters work well, too).

• Although inelegant, it's important to have garbage cans placed nearby any buffet station and the drinks station (with recycling bins for bottles and cans).

• If guests are assembling their own cocktails (or you've hired a bartender), the raw minimum includes vodka, gin, Scotch, bourbon, white rum and tequila, with appropriate mixers (bitters, vermouths, Cointreau, cognac, sour mix, tonic) and juices. For something fun, include recipes at the bar for unusual drinks guests can make themselves. Make sure the bar is stocked with ice, jigger, bar spoons, muddler and shaker (see above) and garnishes (twists, olives, cherries, swizzle sticks).

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.

the cocktail party menu

Mini Asian Crab Cakes

Bite-sized Polenta Squares

Prosciutto-Wrapped Breadsticks

Mixed nuts

Escape from Alcatraz cocktails

>>MODERATE

Mini Asian Crab Cakes

These can be made up to six weeks in advance and frozen.

8 ounces lump crabmeat, picked over and rinsed

¼ cup mayonnaise, plus 3 tablespoons for garnish

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons wasabi paste

1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons plain bread crumbs

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon coarse salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 large eggs

¼ cup sesame seeds

? cup vegetable oil, plus more if needed

1 English cucumber, for garnish

½ cup drained pickled ginger, for garnish

Flake crabmeat with a fork in a medium bowl; stir in ¼ cup mayonnaise, scallions, soy sauce, ½ teaspoon wasabi paste and zest. Stir in 2 tablespoons bread crumbs. Cover with plastic wrap; chill 1 hour.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, salt and pepper; set aside. In a small bowl, beat eggs with 1 tablespoon water; set aside. In a shallow bowl, stir together sesame seeds and remaining ½ cup bread crumbs.

Form one scant tablespoon crab mixture into a ball; dip in seasoned flour. Flatten into a ¾-inch-high cake about 1 ¼ inches in diameter. Repeat with remaining crab mixture. Dip cakes in egg mixture, then roll in bread crumb mixture.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add half the crab cakes; cook, turning once, until golden on both sides, about 1 ½ minutes. Using a slotted spatula, transfer to paper-towel-lined plates to drain. Repeat with remaining cakes, adding more oil if needed. Let cool completely.

Transfer crab cakes to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Freeze (uncovered) until firm, about 1 hour. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze until ready to use.

To serve, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Please the crab cakes un an ungreased baking sheet and bake until heated through, 10 to 14 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir together remaining 3 tablespoons mayonnaise and 1 ½ teaspoons wasabi paste. Using a vegetable peeler, make 24 ribbons from cucumber, folding each into thirds.

Dot each cake with ½ teaspoon wasabi mayo; top with cucumber and ginger.

Makes 24 crab cakes.

Source: Martha Stewart Living

>>EASY

Bite-sized Polenta Squares

2 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup finely chopped onion

2 ¼ cups chicken broth

¾ cup dry polenta

¼ cup chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes

1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley

½ teaspoon minced fresh thyme

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 ounces fresh goat cheese, cut into ½-inch dice

Lightly oil an 8-inch square baking dish. Heat the 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Whisking constantly, gradually add the polenta to the broth in a fine stream. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the polenta thickens and easily comes away from the sides of the pot. Stir in the chopped sun-dried tomatoes, parsley and thyme and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into the prepared dish, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Set aside to cool completely. To serve, cut the polenta into 1-inch squares. Top each square with a small piece of goat cheese and serve.

Makes 16 squares.

Source: 50 Great Appetizers by Pamela Sheldon Johns

>>EASY

Prosciutto-Wrapped Breadsticks

1 package skinny grissini or breadsticks

1 bag baby arugula

16 very thin slices prosciutto

Lay a pouf of arugula along the length of one piece of prosciutto and roll a breadstick up in it, leaving room at the bottom of the breadstick as a "handle." If you want to get really fancy, you can serve these with a mustard dip made of equal parts Dijon, mayonnaise and sour cream.

Makes 16 breadsticks.

Source: Laura Reiley

>>EASY

Escape from Alcatraz

10 ounces rye whiskey

5 ounces Cointreau

2 ½ ounces lemon juice

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

Fresh orange juice (or ruby grapefruit juice), to taste

Ice cubes

Orange slices, for garnish

Pour rye, Cointreau and lemon juice in a glass pitcher. Strain grated ginger through a fine mesh strainer, adding the ginger "juice" to the pitcher. Stir in orange juice or grapefruit juice to taste (if it seems tart, add a spoonful of sugar). Pour into ice-filled highball glasses and garnish with orange slices.

Makes 5 cocktails.

Source: Adapted from The American Cocktail by the editors of Imbibe magazine

The cocktail party: Make it feel effortless 11/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 2:25am]

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